HIV Spikes in African-American Women; U.S. Pushes Awareness

Michele Obama in South Africa
Michele Obama demonstrated her concern for the high rate of HIV among women on her 2011 trip to South Africa, where she met with the organization Philisa Abafazi Bethu.

By Charlene Porter
IIP Staff Writer
Washington,
March 12, 2012

U.S. government health agencies are focusing public attention on HIV awareness among women and girls, at the same time new research shows that HIV infection among certain populations of African-American women is five times the national average.

The Office of Women’s Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services promotes national campaigns to heighten HIV awareness and disease-prevention action, especially as the disease affects women and girls. It encourages activities throughout March, recognized as International Women’s Month.

Research released from a New York–based institution March 9 adds another element of urgency to that message with findings that show African-American women in selected U.S. urban areas have an HIV infection rate five times higher than the average for women in that ethnic group nationwide.

The International Center for AIDS Care and Treatment Programs (ICAP) at Columbia University led the study, which focused on women in urban areas considered “hot spots” for HIV occurrence. The cities all experience rates of poverty and HIV higher than average: Atlanta; Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina; Washington; Baltimore; Newark, New Jersey, and New York City.

The ICAP study, funded by the National Institutes of Health and other institutions, found an HIV incidence of 0.24 percent in its study cohort of almost 2,100 women, of whom 88 percent were African American. In contrast, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found HIV incidence among all African-American women to be just .05 percent in its 2009 assessment of disease rates nationwide.

“This study confirms that black women in these U.S. hot spots have disproportionately been affected by HIV,” said Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr, ICAP director, who is also a professor of epidemiology at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health. “While we have made significant progress in HIV/AIDS prevention, care and treatment, our way forward must include prevention efforts tailored for these communities that are severely affected.”

In 2009, women made up 51 percent of the U.S. population and accounted for 23 percent of new HIV infections, according to CDC. Of the total number of new HIV infections among women, 51 percent were among black women, 21 percent were in white women, and 18 percent were in Latina women.

The reason for the increased incidence among black women is not their race, reports CDC, but rather the difficult life circumstances that beset minority populations in higher rates. These circumstances include high rates of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, limited access to high-quality health care, poverty and stigma.

HIV awareness events sponsored by organizations across the country in March will strive to educate women and girls about HIV prevention, the importance of being tested for the virus and how to live with and manage HIV/AIDS.

GLOBAL WOMEN AND HIV

About half of the 34 million people living with HIV worldwide are women, according to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). In some regions, notably sub-Saharan Africa, the second-class social status of women makes them especially vulnerable to exposure to the infection. Nearly 60 percent of all new HIV infections In sub-Saharan Africa occur in women.

UNAIDS recommends that people who are sexually active — particularly women and girls — have full access to information and counseling to make fact-based choices about their sexual and reproductive health needs. Women and girls must also have access to the widest range of contraceptive and HIV prevention options, the agency says.

The lack of female-controlled methods of HIV prevention and low levels of condom use place women and girls at increased vulnerability to HIV infection. “Women need safe contraceptive and HIV prevention options that they can own and manage,” said Michel Sidibé, executive director of UNAIDS. “New investments into research for female-controlled HIV prevention options and safe contraceptive methods are essential.”

Increasing the capacity of women and girls to protect themselves from HIV exposure is a key element in the 2011 Political Declaration on AIDS, in addition to eliminating gender inequalities and gender-based abuse and violence, which can also expose women to infection with HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. The declaration was adopted at the U.N. Special Session on HIV/AIDS held in June 2011.

The United States has been a leader in the global battle against HIV/AIDS since the adoption of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) in 2003. This is the largest commitment ever made by any nation to combat a single disease. PEPFAR was renewed in 2008 with a law that authorized up to $48 billion to combat global HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.